précis Interview: David Miliband

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  • Spring 2011

David Miliband delivers a public talk: "Afghanistan: Mending It Not Just Ending It" on April 13, 2011. Watch video

May 1, 2011

précis: First of all, thanks for agreeing to spend some time with the Center for International Studies. We at CIS are always excited to hear from practitioners of international politics. What motivated you to come to CIS, and how did this opportunity come about?

DM: At this stage in my career I wanted to reflect and invest, as well as talk and lecture. I was a minister in government for eight years; in and around government for thirteen years. After the 2010 general election we are, obviously, no longer in government—though I am still a member of parliament for South Shields, a town of about 65,000 people in the Northeast of England. But one of the blessings of opposition, of which there are few, is that you do have more time to think and reflect. I had very fond memories of my time at MIT, and I came back here last year to give the Compton lecture. Richard Samuels was kind enough then to suggest that I might be able to make a contribution to the learning of the Center and the University more generally, and I was very keen to do so.


précis: Along the same lines, a core part of the CIS mission is producing policy relevant research that can have a real world impact. Having presided over several cabinet level ministries, what is your impression of how well the academy is serving policy-makers? Do you have any suggestions about how academics might better bridge the gap between research and political action?

DM: I have several thoughts. First, people in academia often think the only key is to "keep it short" for politicians, but I don't think that is a sufficient injunction or rationale for how you engage in policy debate. I hope any sensible politician would say they don't want to do something that has been shown to be stupid. Academia rightly prizes its independence and its objectivity. But politics is by definition value-laden, and I think it is important to be explicit about that. So, it's not that there is no place for objective analysis in politics, it's that politicians want to use information, analysis, and ideas in order to advance their own agenda. Just as academics deserve respect for their independence and objectivity, politicians deserve respect for having strongly held values.

Secondly, academics should not be ashamed of in-depth research on the lessons of history. Certainly in foreign policy, but also in economics, the lessons of history are very important because they provide important perspective on how modern problems compare to those that have been faced in the past. Good politicians are informed by history, not trapped by it, and academic research can be essential in illuminating the difference.

Thirdly, there is indeed tension between the real time pace of politics and the more decorous deep dive that marks academic work. It's not that politicians don't have time to think. Good politicians make time to think, because if you don't take time to think you make more mistakes than you would otherwise. But politicians do face pressing deadlines. Those deadlines come in two forms, one more reasonable and one less so. Deadline one is that you may have to make a decision this week, and being told there is a research project that will take three months is not very helpful. Deadline two is that politicians have a vice of wanting not just quick decisions, but quick impacts. Its not unreasonable for a politician to say "look, I've got to take a view on this by next week," because of a speech in parliament, a policy debate, or something along those lines. But saying "I need to see an impact by the end of the year" is an unfortunate habit politicians sometimes have.


précis: Let's tackle a few policy questions. Last time you spoke at MIT you gave a spirited defense of the NATO commitment to Afghanistan, and you will give a lecture on April 13, "Afghanistan: Mending It, Not Just Ending It." What are the key elements of your vision for the future of Afghanistan, and where should international policy be heading on this issue?

DM: The key elements of my vision are simply stated: without a political strategy no amount of military or development effort is going to work. A political settlement in the villages of Afghanistan means compromise among the peoples of Afghanistan, within a political ring that has a pretty minimal bottom line: no longer hosting Al-Qaida. The absence of a political north star has severely hampered the economic and security effort; it's almost as though the diplomats and the soldiers have had one or two hands tied behind their back. Without the political vision for a decentralized polity in Afghanistan, in which compromises are made within the grain of Afghan history, culture, and society, it's very hard to build a sustainable state.

Last year, in the Compton lecture, I made the case for such a settlement. A year on, I think the case is even more urgent. But rather than just re-make the case, this year I am outlining the five key points for making it happen: the need for a UN mediator; the rationalization of civilian command among all the international players; the development of a regional council for stability; confidence building measures as a prelude to talks about a political settlement; and of course a continuing emphasis on the importance of Pakistan. 

I say "mending it, not just ending it" because, since I last spoke, the date of 2014 that has been established by NATO for a transition to Afghan security forces has been taken as an end-date to the war. But the point I try to make in my speech is that an end date without an endgame is going to prove to be a chimera.


précis: On the other side of the Middle East, NATO has just adopted a new mission in Libya. This commitment has been both praised for its humanitarian benefits and criticized for what some say is a lack of a clear mission. How do you view the Libya engagement? In general, is this the type of mission NATO should be involved in, and if so, what do you see as the conditions for success in humanitarian interventions?

DM: I think the administration here, and to be fair, the government in London, have been more right than wrong. If you think there is a decent chance of slaughter, and if you have the tools to stop it, then you are morally culpable if you don't. It is maybe easier in opposition to say this, but stalemate is better than slaughter. Now, the fact that there is no clear endgame, in circumstances where the military effort we are making is relatively limited, makes it important to justify stalemate. It's not a first best solution, but it's not a twelfth best solution either.

Now the second thing to say is that Libya is a very bad test case for anything. Qaddafi is sui generis, and the country is not strategically significant except to the extent that it affects the rest of the Middle Eastern revolutions. There is a very fine line to tread between the West stepping in to prevent slaughter and the West being seen as trampling on an internal conflict. It's not clear how it's going to end, and an enduring stalemate is certainly a strong possibility, but that is better than Qaddafi's iron fist ruling the country.


précis: You have served Britain as both foreign secretary and environment secretary. This is a useful combination, as many people believe environmental issues are more and more becoming issues of foreign policy. What do you think is the best way to spur international cooperation on issues of global concern? How should individuals think about the connection between their own actions on behalf of conservation and sustainability in a policy area that now spans national borders?

DM: The only way there will be progress towards the goal of consuming resources as though there was one planet rather than three is a combination of government leadership, business innovation, and mass mobilization. It’s a massive challenge, because the problems are long-term, are often in other countries, and the action is costly. This is a difficult collective action problem, but history has shown that people do in fact overcome collective action problems by taking action because it’s morally right and then forming pressure groups to encourage others. However, leaders of society need to get their house in order as well, and if government and business aren’t doing their bit, then individuals are going to feel very left out.

There are real dangers that the resource crunch is going to be an increasing factor in global tensions. Climate change, food price inflation, and rising gas prices are all new factors that mark a shift from resource plenty to resource scarcity. This is a profound shift. You asked, "how do you get more international cooperation on these issues?" Well, in Europe we have quite a bit of international cooperation, but that is because we share sovereignty. That is a very challenging notion for the rest of the world. But if you accept that we live in an interdependent world, you need new rules for governing that world, and the sharing of sovereignty is part of that.

But the truth is, on the environment, and especially global warming, we are going to have a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down approach. Copenhagen didn't work, and the search for a 192-nation agreement didn't work. We are going to have to build this up from the bottom with commitments in each country.


précis: On a more personal note, I'd like to ask you about your career. Your father was, of course, a distinguished intellectual, and you have a reputation as one of the deeper thinkers in British politics today. Have you found a tension between serious intellectual engagement and the demands of practical politics? Do you have any advice for students at CIS who might consider public service after we get our degrees?

DM: I would encourage anyone to go into public service, not just because it is a career serving fellow citizens, but also because the bottom line is so complex. There is no greater honor than being a public servant and also no greater challenge. One of the healthy things about the US system is that there is a great deal of interflow between private academia and government service at both the federal and state level. The traditional secondment period of two years isn't long, but it is long enough to make a real impact. For those who want to pursue a career in government, the Foreign Service, both in this country and in my own, is an institution with real roots and real expertise, and one that allows you to build and use that expertise.

Is there a tension between politics and academic thought? Yes there is, but deeper thought is an underestimated virtue in politics. The public knows when they are being sold something superficial and can intuit when they are being told something deeper. Moreover, for politicians, I think it's unsatisfying if you are just skating along the surface. In our parliamentary system with five year terms, you can't just be in permanent campaign mode.


précis: We at MIT are very excited that one of our alums has had such a distinguished career. Do you think there was anything distinctive about education at MIT that has contributed to the way you approach problems? That is, can we plausibly claim any credit for your achievements?

DM: : Certainly! To the extent that I've had successes, many fathers and mothers can claim them, and to the extent that I've made mistakes, they are my own fault. 

I think that MIT awakened me to deep thinking; to what scholarship is about; to the internationalism of the modern world and the internationalism of the problems it faces. MIT was a microcosm of the global village before we even invented the term. I think MIT reinforced for me Anglo-American similarities and contrasts, but above all the deep relationship between the two countries. And I think it gave me a sober recognition of how little one knows—a piece of humility is always helpful in politics.


précis: Final question, which jumps off of your remarks about the Anglo-American relationship. How do you think that the United States can best cultivate this relationship, regardless of who is in power in each country? If you were to advise the next president, what would you tell him?

DM: I think that it's important that the British side is not too "precious." It's a partnership. You're a superpower; we're not. But we can bring things to the partnership. The key for the UK is to remain committed internationalists, and to ensure that our culture and resources—from diplomacy, to business, to sport, to education, to the military—are all part of the international system. And it's important to remember that it is not an exclusive partnership. We hope that America continues to have strong relationships with Paris, Berlin, and Warsaw; that's a good thing, not a bad thing. 

I wouldn't presume to advise an American president. From the American side though, I do think it's important not to get stuck in a sepia tinted view of what Britain is like. Because Britain is a country that's changing rapidly, and the most dynamic parts of Britain are twenty-first century versions of Britain. Whether on the foreign policy front, the technology front, or the health care front, Britain is at the cutting edge. London is in a way the ultimate twenty-first century city, though New Yorkers wouldn't like to hear that. "Proud of the past, but not living in it" is the best of modern Britain. The more America approaches our relationship from such an understanding, the more productive that relationship will be.